GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017) (Movie Review)

***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content and some disturbing images)
Released:  March 31, 2017
Runtime: 107 minutes
Director: Rupert Sanders
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Peter Ferdinando, Michael Pitt, Chin Han

Available to rent through Amazon Video or buy on 4KBlu-ray, and DVD. Proceeds from purchases made through these links go to support this blog.

March 2017 was anchored by a live action adaptation that wasn’t as good as the original animated classic. It ended with one that’s better.

Ghost In The Shell is substantially superior to its revered 1995 anime predecessor in every respect; both are based on a Japanese manga graphic novel series. It’s also the best Wachowskis movie in nearly twenty years, released 18 years to the day after The Matrix, and those siblings didn’t even make it.

For starters, this take on the popular futuristic dystopian fable is actually about its titular heroine Major, a human/robot hybrid (played here with grit and heartache by Scarlett Johansson). In the original anime, Major was barely a supporting character in her own movie.

From there, director Rupert Sanders takes what had been a muddled narrative that lost track of its central figure (while also barely scratching its ethical surface) and turns it into a visual blitzkrieg of sci-fi wonder that thoughtfully, seriously wrestles with a version of our seemingly inevitable future: a world in which humanity and personal identity are compromised, and consciousness is just a commodity used to empower synthetic robots – when it should be the other way around.

In short, this Ghost is very much alive. But in a character-rich irony, it’s the ghost that’s haunted.

Major is a pistol-packing agent with superhuman powers, not the least of which is controlled invisibility. She’s superhuman because, for the most part, she’s not human. Her shell is the latest development of cyborg technology, an entirely robotic body that houses an actual human brain (and spirit?) in its head. That brain is from a woman whose body did not survive a lethal accident, although memories of her former life have mostly been erased as a result of the process. Without a sense of her former self, Major is lost in an existential void of not knowing who she is.

Her personal struggle is the subtextual (and soulful) underpinning to a plot about Station 9, a government agency that battles the world’s most dangerous criminals. Major is their most advanced asset. A new secret terrorist force has emerged with the ability to hack into people’s minds, threatening innocent citizens and the very nature of society itself. But as Major and her partner Batou (Danish actor Pilou Asbaek) get closer to the truth – and her origins – they begin to discover just how corrupt the whole establishment system is.

Ghost In The Shell strikes a smart balance between action and character, allowing each to inform and motivate the other. The best example of how this improves on its source are the two new characters absent from the original. The first is Dr. Ouelet, played by Oscar-winner Juliette Binoche, the creator and mentor to Johansson’s Major. Rather than a duplicitous scientist who’s manipulating Major according to her superior’s greedy goals, she is a tortured mother torn between her corporate responsibilities and maternal care for what she has made, and wrought.

The other is Kuze, an earlier and failed incarnation of what has been perfected in Major. He’s a character pulled from later volumes of the Manga series, now incisively woven into this narrative. Not only does he take the place of the original’s Puppet Master, the mysterious terrorist hacker, but Kuze (poignantly portrayed by Michael Pitt) becomes a much more complex villain, even empathetic, as we begin to see him and his plight as a tragedy of techno-human evolution, betrayed by the people he was convinced to trust.

Kuze and Ouelet serve as provocative catalysts for Major’s journey and arc, as does the richer interpretation of the crucial garbage man character, expanding the ethical debate that this premise raises – much more than the lauded anime ever did – in effective, heartbreaking ways, as does Major’s new (and inspired) backstory.

Aesthetically, Sanders borrows from several landmark influences beyond the source Manga (even as he replicates many of the anime’s most iconic shots and sequences). This cyber punk world owes as much to Blade Runner as anything, especially in the vibrant yet seedy cityscapes. Vehicles are designed via a 1980s version of the future, as are many other aspects. It all comes together in an eye-popping futuristic palette that mixes the practical and the digital seamlessly, and it’s all juiced up with slickly staged action set pieces.

As far as the cries about this movie’s supposed whitewashing (i.e. casting Johansson and others in originally Japanese roles), the PC uproar is as exhausting as it is intellectually short-sighted. The amalgamized Asian city depicted here reveals a world where race is as fluid as gender, where every city is a melting pot (Asian, English, French, and others co-mingle, as do their languages), and it’s all intentionally there as a fabric of the movie’s predominant theme of blurred identity and the emotional / psychological / spiritual confusion that all this blurring creates.

If anything, the white villain pulling the strings here makes the exact point about cultural appropriation that the Social Justice Warriors think they’re defending. The very basis of the whole movie is about stealing and warping identity without consent. I mean…duh.

But don’t take my word for it.

I’ll leave you with the words of Mamoru Oshii, the director of the original anime and its sequel. Oshii defied the moralizing rants of identity politics and defended the casting of Johansson, saying:

  • “The Major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name ‘Motoko Kusanagi’ and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her. Even if her original body (presuming such a thing existed) were a Japanese one, that would still apply”, and also stating, “I can only sense a political motive from the people opposing it, and I believe artistic expression must be free from politics.”

What’s Japanese for “mic drop”?


*** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for thematic elements, disturbing images, violence, brief sexuality, nudity, and smoking)
Released:  March 31, 2017
Runtime: 124 minutes
Director: Niki Caro
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl, Shira Haas, Michael McElhatton, Efrat Dor, Iddo Goldberg

Available to rent through Amazon Video or buy on Blu-ray and DVD. Proceeds from purchases made through these links go to support this blog.

For a movie that feels like Miramax Oscar bait from twenty years ago (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing), The Zookeeper’s Wife still stirs enough effective human drama – at times rather powerfully – to overcome a recognizable formula of Holocaust perils.

Equal parts stately and gritty, The Zookeeper’s Wife is a period production that wears its prestige well. It takes awhile to find its tonal footing, unsure if it wants to be a safer, more age-accessible version of Nazi persecution, or go all-in on genocidal horrors (or, perhaps, try to have it both ways, the worst choice of all).

Once it decides on the latter (with traumatic scenarios and adults-only content), The Zookeeper’s Wife becomes a worthy take on well-worn material, especially given its unique setting, with the added benefit of being based on a true story.

In 1939 Poland, Antonina and Jan Żabiński (Jessica ChastainJohan Heldenbergh) operate a thriving zoo in the heart of Warsaw. As the German army advances across Europe, however, Poland eventually falls under Hitler’s grip and Polish Jews become inevitable targets. The Żabińskis initially hide one close Jewish friend, but as Nazi persecution increases so too does the Żabińskis’ willingness to increase their level of personal risk.

Pulling an Oskar Schindler style ruse, the Żabińskis cleverly transform their depleted zoo into a facility that can help the war effort. Behind that front, they harbor Jews in a spacious basement while also transferring some to freedom, but with Nazis stationed on the grounds under the oversight of a sinister officer Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl, in the requisite Amon Göth role), the threat is ever present. Complicating matters is Heck’s lustful intentions toward Antonina.

By now, there have been so many Holocaust movies that the collective canon has become a genre unto itself, with its own tropes – and many are recycled here. There are the daring assisted escapes, close calls at check points, roused suspicions, ghetto liquidations, merciless killings, and secret seders – to name just a few.

While that familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, it does mute suspense. But under the sophisticated direction of Niki Caro (Whale Rider) and the conviction of her cast, The Zookeeper’s Wife still wields a significant power. Of particular note is young Israeli actress Shira Haas in an arresting supporting turn as a teen girl who’s taken in by the Żabińskis after being raped and beaten by Nazi soldiers. Her fragility is heartbreaking, and her arc deeply moving. In a performance that’s almost entirely wordless, each moment feels emotionally profound.

There are creative missteps. The accents are all over the map, and some unnecessary brief sexuality and nudity keeps this from being appropriate for a wider audience. With just a few edits, this could have been thought-provoking viewing for younger teens who are ready to be challenged.

Still, the cinematic craft here is first rate, with the look, style, and skill of an awards contender. Caro is slated to helm Disney’s live action update of Mulan, and nearly everything about this production inspires expectation and hope for that endeavor.


WAR Is Unleashed In Latest PLANET OF THE APES Trailer (VIDEO/IMAGES)

Like the trailer says: the war is on. It’d be safe to add that the expectations are now officially high, both for the broad scope of this film’s ambition as well as the latest evolution in detailed digital performances on display in the apes’ conversations. They’re as good as anything we’ve probably seen from this technology. War for the Planet of the Apes hits theaters on July 14, 2017.

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BUFFY Creator (And Marvel Vet) Joss Whedon To Direct DC’s BATGIRL


Finally: DC actually follows through on a no-brainer.

Joss Whedon, creator of TV’s snarky female action hero series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is set to write, produce, and direct DC’s standalone Batgirl movie. You read that right: complete creative control (or at least as close as one gets to that in these cinematic universes).

After having been burned, and burned out by, his experience on Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, one has to imagine that DC had to make a lot of guarantees (like, contractually) to woo Whedon back into a mega franchise of this magnitude. Whatever the terms were, kudos to WB and DC for making a deal that was too good for Whedon to pass up.

Perhaps more than anything, this gives DC a distinct gender boost over Marvel. Disney’s MCU has inexplicably avoided a female-led superhero standalone movie, even though they’ve had ScarJo‘s Black Widow sitting right there ready to go. Yes, Brie Larson‘s Captain Marvel has finally been greenlit (and set to fly in 2019), but with this summer’s Wonder Woman (and her ongoing central presence in the Justice League movies) and now a Whedon-driven Batgirl, DC is clearly winning the suffrage battle by electing Batgirl to topline a major tentpole.

This will be the first feature film ever for the Batgirl character. No casting news was reported in the Whedon announcement, nor was a release date, but the project will also include other Gotham-based characters.

JURASSIC WORLD Director Attempts Small-Scale Spielberg In BOOK OF HENRY Trailer (VIDEO/IMAGES)

If the old school poster is any indication (see below), Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow is hoping his new indie feature The Book of Henry evokes kid-centric Amblin adventures from a generation ago (E.T.The Goonies, etc.), with a few dashes of twee for good measure.  If the first trailer is any indication, he’s not going to equal his ambition.

Trailers can be deceiving, sometimes pitching the movie they think is easiest to sell rather than the one it actually is, but if this ends up being an honest trailer then The Book of Henry will likely land as a failed attempt at 80s-era homage (and not on par with the likes of J.J. Abrams‘ Super 8).

We’ll know for sure when The Book of Henry (starring Jaeden Lieberher, Naomi Watts, Jacob Tremblay, Sarah Silverman, Lee Pace, and Dean Norris) opens this summer on June 16, 2016 – against Pixar’s Cars 3, no less. Isn’t that going to steal from a segment of this movie’s hopeful core audience? A few things don’t quite add up here, including the marketing strategy.

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New VALERIAN Trailer Pops With Sci-Fi Eye Candy (VIDEO)

Who knew CGI overkill could be so glorious? In the hands of Luc Beeson – director of other sci-fi extravaganzas like The Fifth Element and Lucy – high energy spectacle is a guarantee.

The latest trailer for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets offers up more of exactly that, with two central performances by Dane DaHaan and Cara Delevingne that appear to be on target as well. Clive Owen co-stars, along with RihannaEthan HawkeJohn Goodman, and Herbie Hancock.

Though based on a popular graphic novel, its relative obscurity makes it an exciting new, original property for most moviegoers. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets opens on July 21, 2017.


Fox/Blue Sky Animation Is Bullish With FERDINAND Trailer (VIDEO/POSTER)

From the studios that brought us an endless stream of Ice Age movies (but made up for that with entertaining entries like The Peanuts Movie and Rio), Blue Sky Animation and 20th Century Fox give us their holiday entry Ferdinand.

Based loosely on the 1930s children’s book “The Story of Ferdinand” (which was previously adapted into a short by Walt Disney Studios that went on to win the 1938 Academy Award for Best Animated Short), Ferdinand is the story of a kind-hearted bull that’s captured, taken from his home, and determined to return to his family.

Starring the voices of Jon CenaKate McKinnonGina RodriguezDaveed DiggsGabriel IglesiasBobby CannavaleDavid TennantAnthony AndersonJerrod CarmichaelRaúl Esparza, and more, it dares to open on December 15, 2017 – the same day as Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Suffice it to say, it won’t be taking the box office by the horns that weekend.